New campus protest policy causes anger among student activists despite reassurances

Date: 
Saturday, September 24th, 2016
“[Students] have recently lost any right to publicly express dissatisfaction with this school.”

That sentence, written by student Sanjin Ibrahimovic near the top of a wide-ranging 1990-word post to the Illinois Tech Student Community (ITSC) Facebook group, was the first public sign of simmering discontent over a small new section of the university’s Student Code of Conduct which had been the subject of private outcry among campus activists during the preceding week. Ibrahimovic’s extended September 15th screed and the comments it attracted touched on a variety of notable campus issues, but they most meaningfully represented the first large-scale discussion of the changes to the Student Handbook which were made prior to this academic year. That discussion and the private ones before it, largely based upon the premise that such changes were made in reaction to protests last semester, set a distrustful and angry tone for student reception to the revised policy.

On March 3rd of this year, Undocumented Students and Allies (USA), a student organization focused on forwarding access to support and scholarships for Illinois Tech students who reside permanently in the United States but lack citizenship, assembled in the McCormick Tribune Campus Center for their annual “Coming Out of the Shadows” event, sharing stories of barriers to their education and livelihood, both personal and institutional. The group was ejected from the MTCC due to the presence of external news media (who lacked filming permits), but carried on outside on a chilly spring day and eventually marched across campus with a megaphone and an array of banners bearing slogans accusing Illinois Tech of undermining efforts to increase resources for undocumented students. A subset of the group met with university president Allen Cramb at the tail end of that protest to present a list of “demands”, and the organization made itself very visible at the Spring 2016 President and Provost Forum the following week to seek public answers to each item on the list.

The Illinois Institute of Technology has typically seen little use of classic campus protest tactics, which are altogether common at many universities, and the actions of USA during the spring semester made them a lightning rod of sorts for conversations about how student input on sensitive topics can be communicated most effectively to administrators. At the time of the demonstrations, the language present in the Code of Conduct covering visible dissent stated that "intentional obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or other IIT activities and other authorized activities on IIT premises" could be punishable under the Office of Student Affairs’ Conduct Discipline procedure. No students involved in either of USA’s protest events that semester were disciplined under that policy, but members of the group (and many other students) are concerned that a recent change to the Code of Conduct is intended to provide a basis for reprimand. The new language of the policy, now situated in Section 9 of the code, provides the following definitions for punishable activities:

Inappropriate, disorderly, or disruptive conduct that is unbecoming of an Illinois Tech student. Examples include, but are not limited to:

a. Yelling, cursing, or causing a disturbance;

b. Participating in an on-campus or off-campus demonstration or activity that disrupts the normal operations of Illinois Tech and/or infringes on the rights and opportunities of the members of the Illinois Tech community;

c. Intentional obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or other Illinois Tech activities and other authorized activities on Illinois Tech premises; and

d. Leading or inciting others to disrupt scheduled and/or normal activities in the classroom or in any campus building or areas.

TechNews sat down with Dean of Students Katherine Stetz on Friday, September 16th for an interview prompted by these changes, spanning nearly an hour and a half of thorough questions directly and indirectly related to the policy itself. Stetz’s office is ultimately responsible for the text of the Code of Conduct, and changes to the Student Handbook in general. Stetz is also the public face for any policy changes, and interfaces with students directly when questions arise from those changes. As she stated while first turning to the topic of the new behavior policy, “I’m the spokesperson for it, and I’ll own it.”

While Stetz’s Office of Student Affairs bears primary responsibility for the content of the Code of Conduct, she did not work alone when revising the university’s rules for students. The entire code was revamped this year, spurred by the need to update the university’s rules for Title IX compliance (which covers gender discrimination and sexual assault cases at the federal level), and the significance of those changes brought Illinois Tech Provost Frances Bronet and General Counsel Anthony D. D'Amato to the table to forward a policy that would benefit the university and its students while fulfilling all necessary legal obligations. Bronet has been popular among student activists for her humanistic demeanor, often serving as a perceived balancing force for those who see university administration as excessively pragmatic when taken as a whole. Last semester, she spoke highly of the concept of student activism at the Spring President and Provost Forum.

When asked directly whether any portion of the revised Code of Conduct was written as a reaction to the protests last semester by USA, Stetz answered emphatically in the negative. The new Section 9 of the code was a piece of a larger expansion of the vocabulary of many sections of the text, she asserted, and was simply meant to clarify and detail the university’s pre-existing policy. "This exists so that we have a way to hold people accountable if there's disruption in the university,” she stated, adding that the key word of focus for the language’s enforcement was in determining whether an action was “unsafe.” She also explained that her office would typically not decide to enforce the policy on its own, and that the majority of disciplinary actions under the Code of Conduct stemmed from complaints by students, faculty, and staff. The previous, shorter disruption policy held people accountable “mostly when there was violence”, Stetz professed, and the new policy was intended largely to serve the same purpose.

TechNews asked specifically whether either of USA’s two demonstrations last semester would have led to punishment if the newly expanded policy had been in place at the time. Stetz answered that the group’s initial event and March was certainly within the bounds of the policy, since it did not obstruct the regular business of the university or disrupt any university functions. She stated that a very strict interpretation of the language could have seen the group running afoul of the code, since USA’s large slate of speakers during the President and Provost Forum prevented students not associated with them from bringing their concerns forward during the time-limited event, but stressed that such application of the policy “would be student-driven”. If no students saw USA’s actions as disruptive and no reports were made to that effect, no disciplinary proceedings would be initiated. On this point, Stetz expanded by asking “who am I to decide what is important to the students?”

Part of the overarching issue, Stetz claimed, is general student knowledge of how the investigation and disciplinary process takes place. "Complaints open up the conversation," she said, but a complaint itself is not destined to result in punishment. While the new policy is very broad in scope, it is theoretically only intended to be applied in extreme circumstances.

TechNews questioned Stetz about the university’s plans to pass down that interpretation of the policy to new administrators over time so that it would not be used overzealously in the future to stifle dissent, and compared the relatively brief and vague statements in Section 9 to the vast set of enforcement guidelines used by the University of Chicago to supplement its Code of Conduct. Stetz said that no current plans were in place for such guidelines to be drafted, but "if there's a proposal to change the language in this particular number 9, I think between PSAC and SGA I would be more than happy to review whatever it is [those organizations] believe is better for the student body", referring to the President’s Student Advisory Council and the Student Government Association, both of which are tasked with being a voice for student input. The biggest challenge to such an action, she added, was that “when there's a group of people who don't trust, I don't know how to respond in a way that will build that trust.” For those groups of students who inherently distrust administrative actions, Stetz feared that any step could be interpreted in a negative light, a problem that perhaps could not be totally solved.

TechNews sought comment from a number of student activists, leaders, and others to share their stance on the new policy and the conversation surrounding it. One, who preferred to remain anonymous, focused on the university’s private nature, and its ability to restrict speech rights on privately-owned property: "Most of us are paying thousands of dollars for an education and expect the best possible product for our money. We don't come to IIT to listen to protests; we don't want to be blocked from going to classes because of a certain cause . . . IIT has an obligation to provide their customers with the best quality product, and preventing disruptions to the learning environment is part of this obligation." Ibrahimovic, on the other hand, referred to his original Facebook post: “This was not even communicated to students who had been here for years, but rather slipped into the student handbook, thinking that we would not notice. This is malicious intent. When you tell students that you are promoting protest for the sake of bettering the school, and then simultaneously making it against the rules of the university to publicly gather, you are setting up an environment where students risk being kicked out of the school because you have a problem with what they want to say.”

Most opinions fell somewhere in the middle, expressing deep concern about the broadness of the expanded policy and the lack of published rules for how it should be applied while also remaining hopeful for an ethical approach to its application. While some remain convinced that Illinois Tech drafted Section 9 to prevent actions like those taken by USA last year, others believe that the definition of “disruption” will be narrow, and this campus will remain open to protests and demonstrations as long as they remain peaceful. As one commenter opined, “only observation over time will demonstrate whether the policy is enforced as heavy-handedly as its language allows, but what’s most important is how we as students react. If we allow ourselves to feed into the assumption that this school’s leadership is out to get us and are incapable of productive dialog, we won’t ever be able to effectively push for changes to the policy. If we put some faith in our administration’s care for its students, however, and sit down at a table to figure this out, then we might find a compromise that benefits us all.”